A Real Life Game of Thrones: the struggle between Aspar and Leo I, 457-471



(Missorium of Aspar, 434)

FL (avius) ARDABUR ASPAR VIR INLUSTRIS COM(es) et MAG(ister) MILITUM et CONSUL  ORDINARIUS. Aspar, bearded and wearing a tunic and a toga, holds up in his right-hand the mappa, and in his left a sceptre surmounted by two small busts of Theodosius II and Valentinian III. He is flanked by his son Ardabur standing, with the inscription ARDABUR IUNOR PRETOR. His son wears a similar outfit and, also holds a mappa raised in his left hand, whilst he salutes his father with his right hand.  Above them there are two medallions containing the busts of Aspar’s father Ardabur, consul in 427, and his relative Plintha, consul in 419.

The struggle between the Roman emperor Leo I (ruled 457-474) and his Alan mentor and senior Eastern consul Aspar has been seen rightly as a political dispute that helped to determine the long-term survival of the Eastern Roman Empire. What follows is my updated account on this struggle that culminated with the bloody assassination of Aspar and his sons by palace eunuchs in 471.


A Barbarian Cloaked in Roman Clothing?

Leo was born ca 401 in the Balkans. Writing in the early years of Anastasios’ reign, the Isaurian Candidus (frag. 1) maintained that he was from Dacia in Illyricum. While John Malalas (14.35) writing under Justinian stated that he was of Bessian stock (the Bessi were an independent Thracian tribe).[1] This area had long served as one of the primary recruiting grounds for the Late Roman army. [2] Indeed, the careers of men like Leo serve as an apt reminder that the army continued to offer Roman citizens from more humble backgrounds an attractive career opportunity.[3]

At the time of his ascension, Leo was serving as an undistinguished commander of the troops in Selymbria.  The Emperor Marcian had died on 27 January 457. Ten days later at the Campus Martius in Constantinople, Leo was proclaimed emperor in front of a mixed audience of senators, imperial regiments (scholai), key members of the military, and most symbolically, Anatolios, the archbishop of Constantinople. Despite the chants of the audience insisting that each faction “demanded Leo as emperor,” one suspects that most within the audience had a little knowledge about the man who was about to don the imperial diadem. When they all chanted in unison, “Leo augoustos may you always be victorious! He who has chosen you, may he guard you![4] Some within the audience might be forgiven for thinking that this protector was not the Christian saviour of the next line of the chant, but the Alan magister militumFlavius Ardabur Aspar, the man behind Leo’s unexpected crowning.[5]



Marcian (probably) and Leo (definitely) had been raised by Aspar.[7] Aspar had a long if rather chequered military career spanning five decades. With his father, Ardabur (consul 427), he had served in Theodosius II’s short-lived and indecisive war (421-22) against the Persians. Having earned a reputation for martial prowess in the Persian campaign, in 424/25, the father/son duo represented two of the three commanders Theodosius II sent into Italy to overthrow the western usurper John. After the capture of his father at sea, Aspar boldly rescued his father and captured John by stealthily overwhelming the usurper and his supporters in the formerly impregnable Ravenna.[8] In, 431 Aspar teamed up with the western generalissimo Boniface in a failed attempt to expel the Vandals from North Africa.  From 431-435 he had remained in the West commanding the Eastern forces garrisoned there. This service saw Aspar named consul by the western emperor Valentinian III in 434. In 441 we find Aspar negotiating a treaty with the Huns. Aspar and his army in 443 suffered a severe defeat at the hands of Attila. Priscus tells us that by 449, Aspar’s star was on the wane. [9] Indeed, Aspar was probably one of the commanders that Priscus derided for cowardice in the face of the Hunnic threat.[10] By the time of Theodosius II death in 450 it appears that Aspar had regained the good graces of the emperor, and the sixth-century chronicler John Malalas maintained that Aspar was present when the dying emperor supposedly proclaimed that Marcian— a soldier who had served under Aspar— should be his successor.[11]

Though scholars continue to debate how important a role Aspar played in Marcian’s ascension, it seems clear that in the early years of Leo’s reign he wielded a great deal of power, and in fact may be seen as a shadow emperor. Rather than rule himself, Aspar, like his western contemporary the Goth, Ricimer, a bit like Roman Dick Cheneys, largely tried to influence events behind the scenes.[12] In establishing his role behind the scenes he was successful during the reign of Marcian, if obviously less so during Leo’s. Unfortunately for Aspar, Leo had an independent, and if contemporary sources are to be believed a violent streak.

The relationship only soured gradually. Leo took his time before he made his move to eliminate his mentor.  His creation in 460 or 461 of an elite palace guard the execubitors has been seen by most historians as one of his first steps to counterbalance Aspar’s authority.[13] This gathering of soldiers linked to him personally continued when in 464 Leo named his brother-in-law Basiliskos magister militum per Thracias. The emperor’s next moves were much more dangerous to Aspar’s interests. A whispering campaign initiated by the emperor and his inner-circle played upon the traditional Roman distrust of non-Romans in positions of authority. The next year Leo accused Aspar’s son Ardabur of giving away state secrets to the Persians and dismissed him from the command he had held since 453. We are lucky to have a source that provides some insight into the affair, and Aspar’s vulnerability. Written by an anonymous author sometime between 492 and 496, the Life of Daniel the Stylite (55)appears to provide an insider’s view on the incident. In view of its importance in shedding some light on this affair, and indeed, the rise of Zeno, and the opening salvo in the dispute between the East’s two most powerful men, it is necessary to quote it in full:

About that time a certain Zeno, an Isaurian by birth, came to the Emperor and brought with him letters written by Ardabur, who was then General of the East; in these he incited the Persians to attack the Roman State and agreed to cooperate with them. The Emperor received the man and recognizing the importance of the letters he ordered a Council to be held; when the Senate had met the Emperor produced the letters and commanded that they should be read aloud in the hearing of all the senators by Patricius, who was Master of the Offices at that time. After they had been read the Emperor said, ‘What think you?’ As they all held their peace the Emperor said to the father of Ardaburus, ‘These are fine things that your son is practising against his Emperor and the Roman State’. Aspar replied, ‘You are the master and have full authority; after hearing this letter I realize that I can no longer control my son; for I often sent to him counselling and warning him not to ruin his life; and now I see he is acting contrary to my advice. Therefore do whatsoever occurs to your piety; dismiss him from his command and order him to come here and he shall make his defence’.

The Emperor took this advice; he appointed a successor to Ardabur and dismissed him from the army; then ordered him to present himself forthwith in Byzantium. In his place he gave the girdle of office to Jordanes and sent him to the East; he also appointed Zeno, Count of the Domestics.

And the Emperor went in solemn procession and led him up to the holy man and related to him all about Ardaburs’ plot and Zeno’s loyalty; others told him, too, how Jordanes had been appointed General of the East in place of Ardabur. The holy man rejoiced about Jordanes and gave him much advice in the presence of the Emperor and of all those who were with him then he dismissed them with his blessing.

The emperor did not stop here. In 466, Leo appointed Zeno as comes domesticorum and, in that same year, the Isaurian married the emperor’s daughter Ariadne. Attila’s son, Dengizich, invaded Thrace in 467. Leo made Zeno magister militum per Thracias and sent him to thwart the incursion.[14]

The writing must have been on the wall for Aspar. Though Aspar failed in his attempt to assassinate Zeno during this campaign, the Isaurian fled to what Brian Croke describes as a semi exile for the next four years. In 468 Leo launched his massive assault ostensibly to punish the Vandal King Gaiseric for his raids on Eastern and Western Roman lands. Procopius made it clear that a glorious Roman victory was not in Aspar’s best interests. I would suggest, however, that the historian’s further suggestion that the commander of the campaign Basiliskos betrayed the Byzantine cause for a bribe from Gaiseric or as a favour to Aspar are improbable, and are probably linked to later propaganda hostile to both Aspar and the future emperor.[15]

It is interesting to note that Leo himself takes little of the blame in the accounts that survive.[16] I would suggest that this is part of the reason that fifth and sixth century emperors did not feel the need to direct campaigns in person. If the assault failed, a scapegoat could be found within the military, whilst if victory was achieved the emperor could represent himself as the face of Roman victory. Certainly the example of the Western emperor, Majorian’s (ruled 457-461) aborted attempt to launch a military expedition against the Vandals in 460, and subsequent execution in August 461 at the hands of his non-Roman advisor Ricimer, offered ample warning to Leo to proceed with caution.

Clearly despite his largely successful campaign to place blame elsewhere, the defeat for a time undermined Leo’s political momentum. Within Constantinople, as a consequence to Zeno’s exile and the disastrous defeat, Aspar appears to have regained the upper-hand or at least equilibrium. We find that he was powerful enough to have his son Patricus raised to caeser, and Aspar was likely behind the magister militum Anagast’ revolt against Leo I.[17] Yet it would be wrong to paint this conflict as one between the Roman Leo and the barbarian Aspar. After five decades as a member of the upper echelons of Roman society—and in fact the senior eastern senator—Aspar, to borrow the words of Walter Goffart, “was a courtly grand seigneur.”[18]

Without his primary protector Zeno, Leo must have feared for his life. Yet some sort of political stability appears to have returned to Constantinople by 471.[19] Certainly Leo’s eunuchs seemed to take Aspar and his sons by surprise when they assassinated them with relative ease within the imperial palace.[20] Yet Leo’s survival was a near thing. Proof of just how dangerous a situation Leo found himself in before the assassination is the fact that Zeno only found it safe to return to the capital after Aspar and his colleagues had either been killed and/or fled.

Views were mixed on the justice of this move.  Distaste for the assassination is evident in many Byzantine sources. Leo’s nickname “the butcher” was a slight used by his enemies (see e.g. the frags. of Malchus). Not everyone disagreed with the elimination of Aspar. Writing during the reign of Justinian (527-565) Malalas (cf. the similar positive view of Leo found in the history of Malalas’ contemporary, the historian Procopius) records a letter supposedly written by Leo to his western counterpart Anthemios[21] that sheds light on how latter Byzantines viewed this action. Leo explains that he had killed Aspar and his sons in order to be the one “who gives orders not takes them.”[22] He suggests that to avoid being a mere puppet, Anthemios assassinate his supreme commander the Goth Ricimer, and also that he should kill Leo’s rival (and future western emperor) the Roman noble Olybrius. Unlike, Leo, Anthemios failed to act quickly enough and Ricimer was left to his own devices, which led eventually to disaster for the Western halve of the Empire. According to this paradigm, the Western half of the Empire fell because the Western emperors failed to stand up to these barbarian strong-men, in contrast, in the East, the Roman Emperor Leo I assassinated his generalissimo Aspar and purged his Germanic supporters.[23]

Leo’s success in eliminating his puppet master Aspar has been explained by A.D. Lee this way. He suggests that Stilicho’s decision at the opening of the fifth century to name a supreme commander of the Western Roman army stood in contrast to the East where five generals served to balance each other was one important factor.  Leo’s wise manoeuvring to gain a powerful ally in the Isaurian Zeno helped to protect him in the dangerous aftermath of the assassination.[24] Valentinian III had not taken similar precautions. With no one to protect him Aetius’ supports quickly returned the favour.[25] So too had he eliminated a Roman general who had famously defeated Attila. The swift retaliation against such a murder is understandable. Leo had an easier time explaining his elimination of a man he painted as a traitorous barbarian, who had tried to betray the Romans to the Persians and the Vandals. So too could Leo emphasize Aspar’s relatively poor record as a Roman commander. Valentinian III had a much more difficult time disparaging the Roman war hero Aetius.

The fifth century period was a real life Game of Thrones. The older vision of this era as a battle between noble Romans and rogue barbarian factions has, however, largely been overturned. The recent trend is to dismiss the older idea these men were motivated by issues of ethnicity. Hugh Elton, for instance, rejects the idea of “Germanic” and Isaurian solidarity as a prime-mover of affairs during Zeno’s reign. Roman factional politics remained the prime factor in the internal struggles that troubled the twin regimes during this period. Needing to confirm themselves as “true” Romans all three men went to great lengths to establish their credential of leaders of the state and the church. This helps to explain in Wood’s mind why Leo and Zeno took steps to paint themselves as supporters of orthodoxy whilst painting their rivals as enemies of the Church.

Moreover, Leo’s attempt to paint Aspar as an unorthodox and violent “barbarian” may have been an attempt to subvert propaganda critical of his regime. Men like Leo, Aspar, Zeno, and Theoderic were not so different.[26] All had risen to prominence within the Roman military. Like his successor Zeno, as an obscure soldier from Thrace, Leo would have been seen by many within the Constanlopian elite as little better than a barbarian himself (a view of Justinian that we find in Procopius). Yet I would agree with Conor Whatley that “commanders from the Balkans serving Rome, and ultimately based in Constantinople” were considered by their contemporaries as Roman.[27]

So why did not Aspar just make himself or one of his sons emperor or indeed a barbarian rex along the lines of the Ostrogoth Theoderic?  Doug Lee (Contra Arnold, Wood) suggests, the likeliest explanation was that as an Alan and an Arian, Aspar, like Ricimer, could not rule themselves.[28] So too were links to the ruling regime important. Though it seems like Stilicho they sought to align their sons to the imperial family. Kaldellis’ idea that it took two generations into become Roman may be apt, but it does not explain why Aspar could not reign since his father was an esteemed Roman general. Moreover, I would add that they may have preferred avoiding all the other obligations that went along with the role. Certainly Constantius III, if Olympiodorus is to be believed, regretted giving up the relative freedom of his military command after he became Honorius’ partner in 421.[29]Other scholars, however, disagree with this assessment. Jonathan Arnold points out that Aspar was “Roman” enough for a diadem (there is evidence that Aspar was offered to become emperor of the Western half of the Empire)[30]; so was Areobindus; so was Tarasicodissa Zeno.[31]

Where do I stand on the issue? I largely agree with the newer scholarship that sees the turmoil that beset both halves of the Empire as largely resulting from factional rather than ethnic disputes. Yet I am more inclined to believe that men like Theoderic and Aspar may have promoted their non-Romanness, and indeed, Gothic or Alan identity.

So too does it seems strange to me that Aspar would have promoted Leo I to the purple in 457 if he was going to be seen as a barbarian. Zeno too seems to have not promoted his identity as an Isaurian who technically were considered as Romans, if by this period as tenuous and semi-barbaric (see, Lenski 2011). Modern historians seem to make more of Leo’s and Zeno’s status as supposed barbarians than even their most ardent Byzantine opponents did. The ideas that the Western senate offered to make Aspar emperor has also been disputed by some I believe rightly. Moreover, the fact that Aspar and Theoderic remained “Arians” seems important. If they wanted to be seen as Romans: Why not just convert to the “Orthodoxy” of the day? Certainly being an Orthodox Christian was becoming a marker of Romanness in this period. Though as others point out throughout Byzantine history one’s orthodoxy did not necessarily make one a Roman and/or Byzantine e.g. Serbians, Russians etcetera.


[1] Writing shortly after Leo’s reign, Candidus should be preferred. In fact, Malalas’ contention may represent later attempts to paint Leo as a barbarian cloaked in Roman clothing.


[2] Michael Whitby, “Emperors and Armies”, in Approaching Late Antiquity: The Transformation from Early to Late Empire, ed. Simon Swain and Mark Edwards (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 166. For a discussion of Balkan Military culture, see Patrick Amory, People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy, 489-554 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 277-313.


[3] A. D. Lee, War in Late Antiquity, A Social History (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), 82. The majority of recent scholarship on the Late Roman military has increasingly rejected the older entrenched theories surrounding the demilitarization of the Roman upper-classes and the increased barbarization of the Roman armies of the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries.


[4] Following the complete depiction of Leo’s ceremony found in Constantine Porphyrogennetos, Book of Ceremonies, trans. Ann Moffatt and Maxeme Tall (Canberra: Australian Association for Byzantine Studies, 2012), 410-416.


[5] Marcian’s son-in-law the future western emperor Anthemios (ruled 467-472) was probably the expected successor. The Alans were steppe nomads of Iranian decent. By the fifth century many groups had absorbed Gothic cultural ideals.





[7]For Aspar’s essential role in Marcian’s ascension, I side with arguments made by Burgess (“Marcian”): though see the different views found in Chew and Walter Beers (“Faction Politics and the Transfer of Power at the Accession of Marcian”) that suggest that the empress Pulcheria was the key player. These arguments fail to convince; Burgess argues persuasively that Pulcheria’s key role in Marcian’s appointment was an invention of later Monophysite writers seeking to undermine Chalcedon.   For Aspar’s part in Leo’s rise, see Priscus frag.19 (Blockley). For the limitations of Imperial women’s power to influence political events, see now McEvoy, Child Emperor, 236.


[8] Socrates, HE 7.23; Olympiodorus, frag. 43. The ecclesiastical historian Socrates naturally focused on the miraculous aspect of Ravenna’s capture, whilst the secular minded Olympiodorus explained that the prisoner Ardabur had undermined John’s position within the city before Aspar arrived with his cavalry.


[9] Priscus, frag. 14.85-90.


[10] Priscus, frag. 9.3. Priscus most likely composed his history during the second reign of Zeno (Treadgold, Byzantine Historians, 100).


[11] John Malalas, Chronicle 14.27. Cf. Chronican Paschale, S.A. 450. We should, however, discount Malalas’ contention that Theodosius had named Marcian as his successor at this time.


[12]For a full account of Aspar’s career, see – Profile of Aspar in the Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire.


[13] Treadgold, 157. Treadgold’s further contention that these 300 palace guards were predominantly made up of Isaurians has been recently questioned by Croke (“Isaurians”).

[14] For my interpretation of events I follow here: Brian Croke, The Date of the ‘Anastasian Long Wall’ in Thrace” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 20 (1982): 59-78.


[15] Procopius, Wars 3.6.1-2,5-25. Modern historians (e.g. Penny MacGeorge, Late Roman Warlords, 58) doubt the bribe account, placing blame for the defeat on Basiliskos’ bad generalship.


[16]Leo must have instigated a propaganda campaign to keep himself from blame straight away…e.g. painting Aspar as afraid of the Vandals…whilst promoting his own “fearlessness”. The old topoi of blaming a barbarian like Aspar for betraying the Empire to a fellow barbarian had a long tradition in Roman literature. Perhaps blaming Basiliskos’ treachery in accepting a bribe from the Vandals comes later, since it is strange that after such treason he could still become emperor. In the fifth and sixth-century sources, Roman failure in the battle is not blamed on the army as a whole. In the mind of contemporary Byzantine sources, the fleet’s defeat was to be attributed to the “betrayal” by a few individuals at the top.  We see in many of the accounts the subsequent growth of “true” Roman heroes in the face of defeat (note the different heroes found in the accounts of Marcellinus, Malalas, and Procopius).


[17] Priscus frag. 56.


[18] Walter Goffart, Barbarian Tides: The Migration Age and the Late Roman Empire (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), 276. N. 43.


[19] Most historians (e.g. Heather, Restoration, 22), including Croke, have believed that Leo at this time was protected by bands of loyal Isaurians.

[20] John Malalas 14.40.


[21]A former magister utiusqe militae, consul, and patrician under Marcian, Anthemios had been hand-picked by Leo as his western counterpart. As we can see from the passage above, the easterner Anthemios had landed in a difficult situation. As one recent scholar has shown, ‘Contemporary western propaganda sought to paint the Gothic Ricimer “as a noble Roman protector” whilst casting Anthemios “as an enraged Galatian and Greekling rather than the Roman he claimed to be.” (Arnold, 153).


[22] Wood (Multiple Voices) sees this passage as an instance of Malalas being ironic, maintaining that the chronicler sought to present Leo as a barbarian along the lines of Ricimer. I doubt that the rather clumsy historian Malalas was capable of such subtlety.


[23] This view for the fall of the west and the survival of the east found in writers like Procopius is still followed by more traditional scholars: e.g., (Treadgold, 1997, 149-155); (Heather, 2013).


[24]A.D. Lee, From Rome to Byzantium, ad 363 to 565: The Transformation of the Ancient Roman World (Edinburg: Edinburg University Press, 2013), 98-101.


[25] Priscus, frag 30.


[26] For Zeno being far more of a barbarian than Aspar, see Goffart, Tides, 38.


[27] Conor Whately, “Militarization, or the Rise of a Distinct Military Culture? The East Roman Elite in the 6th Century AD”, in: Stephen O’Brien and Daniel Boatright, eds. Warfare and Society in the Ancient Mediterranean: Papers arising from a colloquium held at the University of Liverpool, 13th June 2008. (Oxford, 2013), 49-57.

[28] Doug Lee, “Theodosius and his Generals,” in Theodosius II: Rethinking the Roman Empire in Late Antiquity, ed. Christopher Kelly (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 108.


[29] Olympiodorus, frag. 33.


[30] The story may be anachronistic since it dates from 501, recording a synod between the Gothic rex Theoderic and a group of Western bishops. Supporters of it validity have argued that Aspar was offered the throne either in 450 or 457 they have also debated whether it was an offer to rule in the East or the West.


[31] Arnold, pers. comment. Heather (Restoration, 21-22) rejects the notion that Aspar could have been emperor.



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